Spiral Minaret of the Mosque in Samarra

Great masterpieces of Islamic architecture include The Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Sulaimaniyeh Mosque in Istanbul, the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Great Mosque of Samarra and Alhambra Place in Granada, Spain.

The three holiest sites in Islam are 1) the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, (in Mecca); 2) the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, or Prophet's Mosque (in Medina); and 3) The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Every year millions of Muslims from all over the world visit Masjid al-Haram and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi as part of the Hajj pigrimage.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem set the tone for all mosques that followed. Completed in Jerusalem in A.D. 691, it contains no human figures and instead was decorated with Qur’anic verses written with Arabic calligraphy. The great dome suggested balance and space.

The Great Mosque of Samarra was once the largest mosque in the world. It is only a ruin now but at one it had a wooden roof, supported by 464 columns that covered an area equal to one-and-a-half football fields. Built between 848 and 852 (notice how quickly mosques were made compared to cathedrals), it was rectangular in shape, like most mosques built at that time.

The two holiest sites in Shia Islam after Mecca and Medina are the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf and the Imam Husayn shrine in Karbala. A significant practice of Shia Islam is that of visiting the shrines of Imams in Iraq and in Iran. In Iraq, these include the tomb of Imam Ali in An Najaf and that of his son, Imam Husayn, in Karbala, because both are considered major Shia martyrs. Before the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), tens of thousands made the visits each year. Other principal pilgrimage sites in Iraq are the tombs of the Seventh Imam and the Ninth Imam at Kazimayn near Baghdad. In Iran, pilgrimage sites include the tomb of the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and that of his sister in Qom. Such pilgrimages originated in part from the difficulty and the expense of making the hajj to Mecca in the early days.*

Websites and Resources: Islamic Architecture and Art: Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; Architecture of Islam ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar ; CalligraphyIslamic, lots of Islamic calligraphy

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock (in the middle of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) is world’s oldest and, in the minds of many, most beautiful mosque. Known to Muslims as the Mosque of Omar, it is an eight-sided structure with a golden dome that was built by the Umayyad Muslim Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik between A.D. 688 and 692. The first great building built in the Muslim world, it symbolizes the ascent that all Muslims make to God, who is represented by the circle of mosque’s great golden dome.

The Dome of the Rock was the first real mosque and it set the tone for all mosques that were to follow. Simple and austere, it contains no human figures and instead was decorated with Qur’anic verses written with Arabic calligraphy. The great dome suggests balance and space. Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker, “Here the Arab love of mystical geometry and intricate ornament has been given its greatest expression. The structure...may be imagined as three rectangles, encompassing a circle. Hushed, sombre, but almost always overwhelmingly sensual, the chamber imbues one with a sense of religious awe that few holy places in the world can match.”

The rock inside the temple under the dome is a room-size slab of weathered sandstone sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Many say it is where God stood when he created the world, where Adam was made and where Cain killed Abel. A golden dome sits over the rock and a wooden balustrade surrounds it. Pillars of marble and porphyry support the inner dome. Surrounding it are marble floors, large red and green oriental carpets and a neck-high wall that children need a boost to see over but tall people can reach over and touch the rock. There isn't a whole lot of standing room between the wall and the circle of blue and white alabaster columns and striped arches that support the wooden inner surface of the dome. Illuminating the rock and the golden swirling tiles above the arches are rays of lights colored by stained glass windows in the dome.

Grand Mosque in Mecca (Masjid al-Haram)

Hajj pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca

Harram Mosque (central Mecca) is Islam's holiest shrine. Also known as the Sacred Mosque or the Great Mosque, it is comprised of a perimeter of buildings that surround a massive courtyard and a gallery that encloses the hills of Safa and Marwah, where it is said Abraham's servant and lover, Hagar, searched for water for her son Ismail. At the center of the massive courtyard is the Kaaba, the House of God, Islam's holiest object. When Muslims bow to Mecca five times a day this is where their prayers are directed. During the hajj pilgrims enter the courtyard through the outer buildings at the Gate of Salvation.

The original structure was begun in the 8th century and reconstructed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan (1490-1588). In the 1960s a $100 million, 15-acre addition was added that completely surrounded the courtyard. Later more money was spent to double the mosque's floor space to over 3.5 million square feet with the construction of a four tiered area that could handle two million people on the first day of the hajj. No mosque is allowed to have more minarets than the Sacred Mosque and according to one story a seventh minaret was added by the Ottoman Turks so that the Blue Mosque in Istanbul could have six.

The Great Mosque is now an air- conditioned super complex dominated by Egyptian-style, neo-Ottoman Empire structures built in the 20th century, with octagonal minarets and granite and marble walls. High-tech additions include domes that open and close according to the weather and huge mechanical umbrellas that provide shade. Few people are allowed to climb the 100-meter-high minarets for a look. A wide avenue leads to the mosque. There is large square around the mosque lined with shops and hotels. People enter the mosque through enormous outer galleries beneath two towering minarets.

Prophet's Mosque in Medina (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi)

The first mosque was the Prophet Muhammad's home in Medina, Saudi Arabia, a 7th-Century house with a large courtyard surrounded by long rooms. After Muhammad arrived in Medina, he said Allah would use his camel to chose the best spot to set to set up his camp and a place to pray. The camel knelt before a small barn. This barn became the world's first mosque. It was likely made of palm logs and mud brick and had fiber roofing. A stone marked the direction of prayer. The pulpit used by Muhammad to preach was fashioned from a tree trunk. Muslims gathered in the courtyard to discuss community matters. All mosque built afterwards were based on this humble structure.

Prophet's Mosque in Medina

The Prophet built the first mosque at Medina and for Muslims this place has great significance. The Prophet’s Mosque contains within it the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the tombs of his companions and successors Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. Other members of the Prophet’s family — including his daughter Fatima and several of the Imams revered by the Shi‘a branch of Islam — are buried in the Baqi‘ cemetery outside the mosque. [Source: British Museum =]

Medina is known in Arabic as (al-Madina al-Munawwarra (the Illuminated City). Its importance lies in the fact that it was the place that the Prophet Muhammad migrated to in 622 – the first year of the Islamic calendar. The Prophet built the first mosque at Medina. Although visiting Medina is not an official part of Hajj, most pilgrims will go there before or after visiting Mecca. Amir Ahmad ‘Alawi (1879–1952) wrote: “The long line of camels…and the pilgrims waiting eagerly to catch their first sight of the house of their beloved messenger of Allah caused a strange welling up of emotions inside me. Tears came into my eyes.” [Source: British Museum]

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina is where Muhammad is buried. The second most important Muslim site after Mecca and known in Arabic as Masjid ar-Rasul, it features towering minarets and is supported by arches of basalt and limestone with geometric designs. A high green dome marks Muhammad's tomb, which contains gold and silver grillwork around green-draped bier. On the red carpets believers pray and read Qur’ans. It is forbidden to pray to Muhammad so the pilgrims that gather here direct their prayers to Allah.

The simple mosque that Muhammad built is a simple green-domed structure within the Prophet's Mosque. The mosque complex also contains the grounds of Muhammad's house. Muhammad said that the empty space between the house and mosque---an area of a few hundred square feet---is the garden of Paradise, the only earthy manifestation of heaven,

The Prophet's Mosque is dominated by Egyptian-style neo-Ottoman Empire structures built in the 20th century. The Prophet's Pilgrims was renovated under the Ottoman Caliph Abd al-Majid in 1860 and enlarged by the Saudi government in 1955. In the 1980s and 90s, it was enlarged to ten times the Ottoman-era size to 165,000 square feet. A state-of the-art air conditioning system in another building is considered the largest of it kind in the world.

Muhammad's Tomb

Tomb of the Holy Prophet

The tomb chamber of the Prophet has a green dome and is surmounted by a fiery nimbus. The grille and tomb itself are covered with a green-and white, chevron-patterned textile The Prophet’s pulpit (minbar), on which he preached sermons to the community, is depicted within the arcades on the right. In the centre is the tomb of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, in the garden that she planted with two palm trees when her father was alive. The tombs of some of the Prophet’s companions — including the tombs of the first two Caliphs (the Prophet’s successors) and of the Prophet’s daughter — are beyond the sanctuary walls. Outside the walls is an area used by Hajj pilgrim, that in the old days contained camels, luggage and tents. The historical sites of Mount Hira and Mount Uhud are beyond the walls.

In addition to the textiles made for the Ka‘ba and the holy sanctuary in Mecca, similar textiles were also made for the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina. These textiles either adorned the tomb of the Prophet or hung on the grille near the tomb. Fragments of a cover for the Prophet’s tomb were highly treasured. After the cover had been taken down from the tomb chamber it was cut up and lined with another fabric to preserve it.

Omayyad Mosque in Damascus

Omayyad Mosque (near Al-Hamidieaj Souq) is regarded a the forth holiest Muslim shrine after the Kaaba in Mecca, Muhammad's Grave in Medina and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Built between A.D. 707 and 714 by the great Caliph Al-Walid Ibn Abdel Malek, it a masterpiece of Islamic architecture built on a site once occupied by an immense Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter and a Byzantine cathedral honoring John the Baptist.

Omayyad Mosque

Also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, it features walls covered with splendid Byzantine-style mosaics of natural scenes with trees made from glass placed against a gold background. It also boasts three classical Byzantine-style domes, rows and rows of columns, large tower-like minarets, splendid colored and gilded glass mosaics, and an enormous courtyard surrounded by pillars and arches and fronted by a 400-foot-long facade.

Set between two pillars is a domed shrine, reputed to be the final resting place for the head of St. John the Baptist and the Prophet’s grandson and Shia martyr Hussein. One can also see relics from the ancient Temple of Jupiter. Sparrows and pigeon dart in an out the eaves and Roman capitals. The walls, ceilings, arches and columns are decorated with designs similar to those found on oriental carpets. The courtyard is ringed by elaborate mosaics depicting heaven. Many Muslims believe that Jesus will make his second coming at its minaret. The 14th century octagonal treasury was used to store public funds.

Omayyad Mosque has survied 1,200 years of invasions, earthquakes and sackings. For centuries it served as the staging for Muslim pilgrims bound for Mecca. When Pope John Paul II stepped inside the Omayyad mosque in Damascus it was first time ever that a pope had entered a mosque.

Suleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque (between Istanbul University and the Golden Horn) is considered by many to be the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul (some say the world) and a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. Situated on top of a hill like many of Istanbul's mosques, it is a massive structure with four minarets rising from the corners of a large courtyard and a cascade of nipple-topped domes descending down from a central cupola.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Built between 1550 and 1557 and designed by the famed Ottoman architect Sinan, this mosque is named after Süleyman the Magnificent, the greatest of all the Turkish sultans and Sinan’s employer. The "Magnificent" was added to his name by his European contemporaries, which included Ivan the Terrible, Henry VIII and Francis I, the King of France. The sultan and his wife Roxelana are buried in a tomb outside the mosque. Sinan, considered to be Turkey's greatest architect, is entombed in a mausoleum nearby. The four minarets are said to represent that Suleyman was the forth sultan to rule over Istanbul.

Inside the mosque are marvelous stained glass windows and pulpits and prayer niches carved out of white marble. Adjoining the mosque are more dome-topped buildings as well as structures that look like they are lined with giant baby pacifiers. These buildings were formerly occupied by colleges, a hospital, a caravanserai, a soup kitchen, shops and baths. A terrace on the north side of the grounds offers excellent views of the Golden Horn and the Bosporous.

Alhambra Palace

Alhambra (1 kilometer outside of Granada) is the most popular tourist attraction in Spain. Described by a European visitor in 1494 as "so magnificent, so exquisitely executed that even he who contemplates it can scarcely be sure that he is not in paradise," it is situated on top of a forested, red-clay hill, with the sometimes snowcapped Sierra Nevadas in the background.

According to the BBC: “The Alhambra Palace is perhaps the finest surviving Muslim palace in the world and its symbolic of an episode that many Muslims believe has been all but written out of the history books by Europe's Christians: the flowering of Islam culture, philosophy and science, which meant that once the intellectual heart of Europe beat not in Paris, Rome or Athens, but in the great Muslim cities of Granada and Cordoba.”

The Arab quarter offers the best views of the Alhambra, whose fortress-walls blend in harmoniously with the buildings and landscape that surround it. Before the Moors came the Alhambra was a barren hill. With their plumbing system, their skill and their artistry they turned it into paradise that some people believe was the inspiration for the pleasure palaces in “The Thousand and One Nights”.

Each year about 1.5 million people, half of them foreigners, visit the Alhambra. The most visited buildings are the Palace of the Comares, the Hall of the Two Sisters, Patio de Draxas and the Palace of the Lions. If you stay in the Parador de San Fransicio, within the Alhambra, walls you can wander around the palace at night when it is not open to the public.


History of the Alhambra

Established in 8th century and largely built in the 13th and 14th century under the Moorish sultans Yusef I and his son Muhammad V, who believed they had found a setting that rivalled the description of heaven in the Qur’an, the Alhambra contains buildings with marble columns, lacework aches and ornamented tiles. Described as a dwelling worthy of Allah, it is situated on the top of a hill with views in every direction.

In addition to being a worldly paradise, the Alhambra was first and foremost a fortress ("Alhambra" means "red citadel" in Arabic). The Nasrids (an Arab-descended Muslim dynasty founded by Muhammad ibn-Yusuf ibn-Nasr) chose the hilltop as much for it defensible position as for its beauty and installed massive walls, formidable gates and imposing towers. After the fall of Granada to the Christians, the Spanish monarch designated the Alhambra as their royal residence in Granada. Although the Spanish royals rarely stayed there, its status as a royal residence made sure that that it received funds for maintenance and repair.

Much of the Alhambra was made when it was clear that it was only a matter of time before Granada fell. Some scholars argue the beauty of the Alhambra is superficial. Jerrilynn Dodds, a professor of architectural history at the City University of New York, told Smithsonian magazine, "The Alhambra is like a big stage set. It was cheaply done in an opulent way. It was an incredibly defiant gesture. They were defying the Christian onslaught with their own sophisticated culture."

Describing his arrival to the hilltop palace city in the “Tales of the Alhambra”, Washington Irving wrote: "the transition was almost magical...we were at once transported into other times...treading the scenes of Arabian story. We found ourselves in a great court paved with white marble and decorated at each end with light Moorish peristyles..In the center was an immense basin...stocked with goldfish...At the upper end of the court rose the great Tower of Comares."

Irving lived at the Alhambra for several months in 1829, calling it a "Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land, an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West, an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away." Irving said that a couple of years before he arrived the palaces were occupied "with a loose and lawless population—contrabandistas who” carried “on a wide and daring course of smuggling; and thieves and rogues of all sorts."

part of the Alhambra

Architecture of the Alhambra

The Alhambra is surrounded by a thick stone wall with 22 massive towers, several of which were turned into small palaces. The complex of buildings inside the wall includes of military, administrative, palatial and religious structures, six pleasure palaces for the sultans, a mosque, sumptuous gardens, shopping streets and quarters for servants and artisans.

In spite of its impressive buildings, the Alhambra is not a structure that is admired for its massive architecture, but rather for it small details and harmony. To appreciate Alhambra it is important to understand first that Islam considers art work with human or animal figures in it sacrilegious. While medieval and Renaissance labored to capture the essence of human form, Islamic craftsman poured their energy and skill into making abstract decorations that were prized for their mathematical precision and symmetry.

The interiors of the Alhambra's rooms are adorned with elaborate lace-like arabesque decorations made with stucco (plaster made from lime and earth) and colored tiles. Using the simplest of tools (hammers, compasses and rulers) and the simplest materials (bricks, glazed tiles and plaster) the Alhambra's craftsman used their skill to decorate doors, arches and columns. Unlike gothic and baroque architecture which adds a lot of heavy unnecessary ornaments to structures, Islamic mujeder architecture, makes do with what was at hand, chiseling material away or adding simple tile and stucco ornaments.

Art and Craftwork of the Alhambra

Although mujeder architecture is incredibly decorative it is also austere and light. Most of the decorations are renditions of geometric forms, flowers, trees, vines, leaves, acorns, pomegranates, coroneted shields, shells and plants that are organized into graceful and stylish symmetrical designs. Victor Hugo called it a "palace that the genies have gilded like a dream and filled with harmony."

Many of the designs are poems or Qur’anic verses written in the flowing and ornate style of written Arabic and Maghribi script. The Arabic calligraphy is so stylized that they are difficult to distinguish from the vines and flowers. There are 30 poems scattered throughout the Alhambra as well as mottoes, brief prayers (like "Blessing" and "Happiness"), quotations from the Qur’an, maxims, notes about the construction, information, and praises of the sultans.

Alhambra patio

One of the most repeated phrases is "There is no conqueror but God," the motto of the Nasrid dynasty. A poem by the 14th century poet Ibn Zamrak in one of the chambers surrounding the Court of Lions reads: "I am the garden, i awake adorned in beauty; Gaze on me well, know what I am like...What a delight for the eyes! The patient man who looks here realizes his spiritual desires,"

Instead of creating man-made frescoes and painting and natural scenes, which decorate many churches and Christian palaces, the Moors brought in the real thing: trees, flowers and bushes, creating wonderful gardens organized around fountains and pools. The Arabs and Moors found Spain to be an inspiration. Compared to the deserts back home in North Africa and the Middle East, Spain was a lush, green paradise. The Alhambra is filled with gardens and groves of fruit trees that pay tribute to Spain's lushness.

Nowhere in the Alhambra is one out of earshot of bubbling or flowing water. The fountains and pools, which seem to be everywhere, are all fed by a gravity-powered plumbing system that brings in water from a river six kilometers away. With the exception of a few replaced pipes, the Alhambra still uses essentially the same water system built by the Moors, starting more than a 1000 years ago.

Parts of the Alhambra

The Alcazaba, the oldest part of the Alhambra was built in the 9th century. The Nasrid Palace, at the heart of the Alhambra, was constructed around the Myrtles and Lions Court in the 14th century.

The Hall of the Ambassadors in the Palace of the Comares, where the sultan met foreign envoys, is often called the jewel of the Alhambra. It has a magnificent domed ceiling adorned with cedarwood carving, a tiled floor, and stucco work with inscriptions from the Qur’an. Every arched window has a different view of Granada.

The pointy stucco designs in the Hall of Two Sisters burst from the ceiling like a stalactite super nova. Ceramics, carpets, swords and manuscripts are displayed in many of the rooms. Daraxa Mirador overlooks a garden with orange and pine trees, flowers and spice plants. The Myrtles Court contains a narrow reflecting pool stocked with large goldfish and framed by hedges.

Alhambra fountain

The Abencerrajes Gallery is richly decorated with arches, slender columns, a stalactite ceiling and star-shaped cupola. In the gallery's basin Boabdil reportedly placed the 36 subjects sentenced for treason. The King's Chamber contains unusual paintings of Moorish and Christian princes relaxing and enjoying themselves. The Mexuar, the seat of the judicial administration, contains a marvelous carved wood cornice with many tile and stucco decorations.

All of the things that make the Alhambra beautiful come together in the Court of the Lions. Built between 1354 and 1391, this courtyard has a small pool and fountain that is enclosed by delicate columns and ornately engraved arches that conjures up images of a cool oasis. The slender columns that resemble flower stalks and elaborate arches with web-like designs. The central fountain is supported by water-spewing lions that look like English sheep dogs. Running through the garden around the courtyard are narrow canals with rippling water. The wild cats that roam around the Alhambra sometimes hangout here.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Majal is arguable they world’s most magnificent building. Over the years hundreds of writers have sung its praises. Paul Theroux wrote it "is something else. Just looking at it you are certain you will never forget it. It is not merely a visual experience, but an emotional one—its pure symmetry imparts such strong feelings; and it’s a spiritual experience, too, for the Taj Mahal is alone among buildings I have seen. It is note merely lovely; it looks as if it has a soul."

The Taj Mahal work both from afar with its curves, symmetry and majesty and up close, with its exquisite details. It is set next to a river and the best view is with the sky in the background and the reflecting pool in front. The color of the marble changes throughout the day and turns from white to yellow to orange to fiery red and finally black at sunset. The white contrasts with red sandstone of the mosque and its matching jawab, the two buildings that flank the Taj. The curves of the dome and the tomb have a feminine quality. The minarets help to anchor in place. The gardens that surround it augment the beauty. The skills of the stonework is best appreciated in the delicate, lacy marble screen around the tomb.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was built by Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan to honor his favorite wife Empress Mumtaz-I-Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palaces”) who died at the age of 39 in 1631 after bearing her 14th child. Shan Jahan was reportedly so grief stricken when his wife died his hair turned grey overnight. The name the Taj Mahal is shortened version of the name Mutaz Mahal. The Taj is believed to have taken some 20,000 craftsmen, working around the clock, 18 years to complete at a cost of 40 million rupees (around $500 million in today’s money). Labor was cheap then as it is now. Construction started in 1632, two years after the death of Shah Jahan’s wife. The main tomb took 16 years ro build and the rest took another five ro six years.

Shah Jahan vowed to build the world’s greatest monument to express his love. A master mason was brought in from Baghdad; a dome specialist was brought in from Turkey. Flower carvers came from Bukhara, pinnacle maker from Samarqand, calligraphers from Baghdad, dome constructors from Constantinople, master mason from Qaundhar and Mogul gardeners were all brought in to the complete the building, which was based on the tomb of Khan Khahan in Delhi. According to legend the hands of the most skilled artisans were cut off after they were finished so they never duplicate their work again.

Shah Jahan spent the last nine years of his life staring a the Taj Mahal out of the window of his palace before he was eventually entombed there. In the original plan a Taj Mahal made from black marble was going to be built across a reflecting pool from the white one. These plans were scrapped by the Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan's son and austere successor.Aurangzib, one chronicle wrote, "was not disposed to complete it." He chose to make larger but less beautiful building to honor himself. Aurangzib also reportedly added his father’s tomb to the Taj to unbalance its symmetry. A fanatically devout Muslim, Aurangzeb believed that symmetry and perfection should be reserved for God.

After the Mogul empire went into decline the Taj was lotted of its fine carpets. silver doors, tapestries and jewels by Britons and Jats. One British governor general even suggested dismantling the Taj and selling the marble. That plan was scrapped and instead it and the mosque were used for dancing parties. The garden were modified with lawns by the British and was used by picnickers who sometimes came armed with chisels and hammers to chip out pieces of agate and carnelian.

Design of the Taj Mahal

Nobody is sure who designed the Taj Mahal. No official surviving document names the architect. Some think it was designed by Ustad Isa, a Persian master builder the architect of other Shah Jahan buildings. Others think it was the work of a committee with the shah himself playing a major role. Others say it was Venetian Jeweler Geronimo Veroneo. According to one legend the architect was a man named Ustad Ahamad Lahori. After the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan reportedly cut off Lahori’s hands and had him blinded so that he would never be able to duplicate the structure.

back side of the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is built in accordance with the Persian view of the world. The dome symbolizes the vault of heaven over a square building representing the world. The Taj Mahal’s design was not original. The tomb of the Mogul leader Humayan, built almost a century earlier, appears to have been a model for the Taj. Similar minarets are found in Lahore. The cupola beside the dome and other features were common in Indian architecture. What makes the Taj so extraordinary are the way all the various elements are brought together in harmonious symmetry.

The position of the building was carefully chosen. Located on a bend of a river, it is surrounded on three side by water. Reflecting pools, fountains, cypress trees and gardens grace the forth side. The while marble was carried 200 miles by bullock carts from quarries in Makrana. The walls of the Taj Mahal were once adorned with diamonds, sapphires, amethysts and turquoise stones. Small pierces of turquoise, lapis lazuli, agate, jasper, malachite, coral and carnelian were inlaid in the marble to add color and delicacy to floral designs. Many of these semi-precious stones have been gouged out by vandals. Above the crypts, penitents kneel beside the candlelight cenotaphs. Around the cenotaphs is an octagon-ranged marble screens set in inlaid frames that alone took more than 10 years to make.

Today, when viewed from a certain distance, it looks like all the calligraphy on the facade of the building is the same size, an illusion created by the fact the calligraphy gets bigger the higher up—and further way from the viewer—they are. It is also said that the minarets lean slightly outward so that if an earthquake should strike they will not topple over on the dome.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace (overlooking the Bosporus and the Golden Horn) is maze of buildings, gardens and courtyards, surrounded by a massive wall, 30 feet high and 20 feet thick. Taking up a good portion of Old Istanbul, Topkapi was the home of the 25 Turkish sultans from the 15th to 19th century. The Ottoman Empire was one of the richest empires ever and the treasures it accumulated over 450 years are all displayed right here in a series of museums that are among the best in the world. The palace was originally called the New Imperial Palace. But later the name was changed to Topkapi Sarayi (“Palace of the Cannon Gate”). [Sources: Stanley Meisler, Smithsonian; Dora Jane Hamilton, Smithsonian, February 1987; Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1987]

Topkapi on the hill

The first part of the palace was built between 1459 and 1465 by Mehmet the Conqueror, shortly after the Ottomans claimed Istanbul, on a 175 acre wedge-shaped promontory formally occupied by a Byzantine acropolis. At the height of the Ottoman empire in the 17th century, Topkapi hosted parties with 40,000 people. As the sultans became increasingly Westernized they began to scorn Tokapi and spent less time there. In 1853, the sultans moved to Dolmabahçe and Topkapi became a rest home for aged concubines and slaves.

Studies by Gulru Necipoglu, an expert on Islamic art and architecture at Harvard, have shown that the layout of Topkapi resembles a traditional tent encampment used when the sultan lead his armies in battle. Power was demonstrated by accessibility to the sultan, who was protected by walls and courts. Foreigners were generally only allowed in the outer courts while trusted aids and family members were allowed into the inner courts where the sultan lived, now occupied by the Treasury.

Visitors enter Topkapi through a gate in back of Aya Sofya, where the heads of executed traitors were displayed in Ottoman times. Visitors then buy tickets in a courtyard that only the sultan could ride through on horseback. The tickets are taken in another gate, where yet more heads were displayed. The first, outer, court contains a wooded garden. The second court features a magnificent courtyard and a garden shaded with plane trees and cypresses. The third courtyard holds the Hall of Audience, the Library of Ahment III.

Rooms of Topkapi Palace

The lay out Topkapi resembles that of a small city. There are gardens, offices, residences, halls, quarters for soldiers, bureaucrats, and servants, workshops and kitchens that at first glance seem to be organized with no real rhyme or reason. The outer walls resemble those of a European castle but inside there is no grand palace, where the sultan lived, but rather a complex collection of pavilions, rooms, buildings, gardens and courtyards.

The Palace Kitchen (right of the second court, near the entrance gate) is where meals were sometimes prepared for 8,000 people with recipes that called for 500 lambs. The food for these massive banquets were delivered by relays of slaves and prepared by a regular staff of 17 butchers, 23 yoghurt makers, 17 chicken handlers, 27 candlemakers and six people in charge of supplying ice and snow for summer drinks. On display now are ladles the size of pots and pots large enough to boil African explorers.

Chamber of the Holy Mantel in Topkapi

Next to the kitchen are rooms and rooms of Chinese porcelain, a collection scholars say is surpassed only in Beijing and Dresden. Many of the dishes are made of greenish celadon, a ceramic material the sultans thought would change color in the presence of poisoned food. The are also displays of silver and crystal here.

In the rooms off the courtyard around the Harem today there are silk brocade ceremonial caftans, stitched together with gold and silver thread; other imperial costumes worn by the sultans and their family; silk carpets; armor, musical instruments; postage stamp-size Qur’an manuscripts; talismanic shirts with Qur’anic scriptures used to ward off evil spirits; paintings of sultans and their battles; medieval manuscripts; and 15th century clocks and celestial instruments. In one museum you can see a poem penned by Süleyman the Magnificent with gold flaked ink that reads, "I AM THE SULTAN OF LOVE."

The nomad-tent-shaped council chamber is where the sultan listened in on the meetings of his viziers. In the throne room ambassadors greeted the sultan after walking past 2000 bowing officials. Other buildings include the executioners room, stables, artist's studio, school for officials, the armory and the training room for elite troops. Baghdad Kiosk and Revan Kiosk are set in a garden where the sultans relaxed among fountains and luxurious carpets and furniture. The Topkapi Treasury houses a stunning assemblage of gems equaled only by the Crown Jewels in Britain and the Shah's treasures in Iran. The buildings now occupied by the treasury are where the sultan lived. Some of the museum's treasures, such as rotating music boxes and solid silver elephants from India, were gifts from foreign dignitaries to the sultans. Some, like the gem encrusted Qur’ans, were gifts from pashas under the sultan controls. And others were spoils of war.

Topkapi Harem

Turkish sultans were allowed four wives and as many concubines as they wanted. The Topkapi Harem (left of the second court, near the entrance gate) is contains the secluded quarters where the women lived, the chambers where they entertained the sultan and the swimming pool where they frolicked and swam laps. During Ottoman times the sultan was the only man who still retained his plumbing that was allowed to enter the Harem; uninvited guests sometimes ended up with the traitors at the front gate. The word “harem” is derived from Arabic word “harim," which means “inviolable area." Most Ottoman sultans married slaves. From the 16th century on no Ottoman sultan was married to a free woman.

Fruit Room in the Harem at Topkapi

Expanded by Murat III in 1589 to 400 rooms, the harem in Topkapi it was the largest harem in the world, requiring a staff of 1,200 servants to keep it running smoothly. The complex included the sultan's bedroom pavilions, quarters for the sultan's mother, baths for the sultan and his mother, quarters for the princesses, dormitories for the girls and eunuchs, swimming-pool-like marble baths for the girls, latrines, a hospital, a domed salon, a dungeon and special rooms where the sultan's brothers were confined to keep them from hatching plots and conspiracies. The sultan and his ladies were entertained by troubadours and jesters in the grand audience hall, which was equipped with fountains to foil eavesdroppers.

The quarters for the sultan and his mother were quite grand. The bedroom of Murad II was a collection of room designed by the great architect Sinan. It contains Iznik tiles, a marble fountain and a plume-shaped bronze fireplace. The fountain was used to conceal the sound of voices. Accommodations for the wives, concubines, dwarfs and other retainers in the palace in many ways was more like a prison than a palace. Most people lived in dormitories. Those that lived alone lived in small misshapen rooms with no windows. As their importance to the sultan diminished so too did their room size.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Conversation, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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